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Author: emmalina

Summer’s Scent

Summer’s Scent

The air at night smells like burning sugar, that deep, caramel smell that tells you something delicious is on the way.  I don’t know what combination of plants and warmth is required to make that smell, but every summer it catches me by surprise.  The light is always dipping behind the horizon when I catch this scent, I always wonder at first if it is something cooking somewhere.  But then I remember, standing on that spot the year before and the year before that.  Every year I remember and every year I am amazed.

I dip my head under the willow branches as I head to the chicken coop.  It’s time to close the door on our girls and their guardian boy.  The air under the willow tree is cool and soft, like walking through thin water.  When we moved here the tree was not so broad, it’s branches didn’t dip so low.  Now we weave through them, like a curtain to a secret world.  It is the gateway that separates farm from home, my own little Narnia entranceway.

I check to see that the Rooster is in the coop, he won’t hop in until all the girls are safely tucked away.  He’s always in a different spot and the gaze he lays upon me is imperious.  I’ve done my work, he says, you do yours.  I internally forgive him for his ninja lightening strikes from out of bushes or long grass, scratching my legs and getting a swift bucket to the face in retaliation.  We are not at peace, but there is a cessation in hostilities as I close the coop under his watchful eye.

Winnie goes happily into the barn for her night time rest.  A day of watchful snoozing in the shade can be exhausting.  Our routine is familiar now, it takes no time at all.  I slide the bolt across and think again how proud I am of this building my love made.  I take the gravel path home, checking in on the pigs as they settle in the twilight.  Stretching out on broken down hay bales they organize themselves as they wish.   Their inner workings are quite mysterious, you see.

At the house I turn my head to breathe in mint and lemon balm, they merge on the cooling air.  The lights of stars spark to life in the darkening sky, but everything else is lost in the wash of menthol and citrus that drifts from the garden bed.  They spill everywhere and I am delight in their fragrant messiness.

The bites of bat sized mosquitoes chase me in, in to a house filled with the last light of the day.  We never turn the lights on until we have to, I love that half light of all things the best.  The noise of children avoiding bedtime usually drives away any freshness I brought in with me, but tomorrow I might be lucky and surprised again; surprised by the smell of sugar in the air.

Sad Tales. Happy Tails.

Sad Tales. Happy Tails.


Of course the pig would have to choose a windy, icy night on which to birth out.  It just had to be 3am after I’d been ill for a few days.  Her milk just had to come in on the night Stephen had to work late and she just had to be in the wrong field and we just had to herd her into the farrowing barn through the ice and wind instead of being cosy and warm by the fire like normal people.

Normal.  People.

No it doesn’t ring true, so I should just let it go.  Normal people don’t put their hand inside a 600lb sow at 3.45am on a Wednesday in March to retrieve tangled piglets and bring them gasping into the world.  But if I didn’t I wouldn’t get to hold squiggling bundles as they feel cold air for the first time, and are propelled by every instinct in their tiny bodies towards the milky safety of their Mama.  I wouldn’t get to feel the powerful pulse of life, working along side an animal that trusts me, gently but firmly pulling breech birth babies out by the tail while sweating in the frigid night air.

I don’t think normal is my bag.


Normal sounds quite appealing when things go badly, like several hours earlier when I was riddled with stress and panic, wondering if we could coax our ready-to-birth sow across the line she’d learned to avoid and respect.  If we could get her to walk across the now massive seeming pasture and into the safety of the farrowing barn, where she and her babies would be safe.  Because let me tell you, that pig does not go anywhere she doesn’t want to.

In the end ‘we’ didn’t.  Stephen did.  The relationship he has with that pig really does astound me, and so he coaxed her carefully in to the barn where she could birth in safety and her piglets could be coddled and healthy.  Putting my arm up a pig’s birth canal was peanuts in comparison to that, I’m really not kidding.

Our clever girl birthed 13 piglets, a beautiful mix of black, Berkshire striped and spotty ones.  They couldn’t be prettier and we sighed with relief when she cleared the second after birth and stood up for a drink.   In September her birthing had been so hard we wondered if she could be a Mama again, but our vet was confident and I’m so glad we took her advice.  Mrs B was a super champ and has been the most content with this litter that I have ever seen.  In her purpose built pen she can see her babies as they cosy up under the heat lamps in their special ‘creep’ box.  They can get out of her way as she gets cosy and moves around, then she lies down (along protective boards that give piglets places to hide) with her udder facing them and oinks for them to come to dinner.  It’s the loveliest scene you can imagine.

And while I like to tell people about the lovely bits, there are sad bits too.  Pigs have lots of babies because they are not all expected to make it.  We’ve worked very hard to create an environment that minimises the risk of crushing and keeps the babies safe and warm.  The pen allows Mrs B freedom of movement (unlike farrowing crates) and when they are all napping under the heat lamps she gets to rest and recover.

But as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall said, ‘Sometimes we don’t get to play God.  Sometimes God does.’

One of the piglets, one we dubbed ‘squealer’ because she was shrieky from minute one, started to show signs of struggle early.  I was out with the kids when Stephen called to tell me she was looking really weak, she seemed to have had some kind of stroke.  He wisely brought her inside and kept her warm and cosy, secretly hoping she might bounce back.  She died on our bed in the sunshine; the warmth of the house and a gentle departure was the best we could offer her.

The next day, when I was doing my bi-hourly check of the piglets, I found another little one down.  She was the runt of the litter, half the size of the others and had struggled from minute one.  Somehow she’d managed to wriggle herself under the slide board during the birthing process and was cold as a stone when we found her there.  While we assisted Mrs B we’d kept her in our jackets, close to our bodies, to warm her.  After a session with me by the fire she’d perked up and returned to her Mama.  When I found her she was cold and still, barely breathing.  I sighed with heavy heart and brought her in.

Warming her up was the priority so I dug out the sling I used to carry the boys in and tucked her in there with a heat pack.  She staying snuggled in for hours and, much to my surprise, carried on breathing.  No one sells pig milk replacer in our area, but our vet had told us that kitten milk might work.  We duly purchased some and began to syringe feed the little one in the hopes of giving her strength.

Syringe feeding can be a risky business, if you get it wrong the piglet will aspirate and die, so slow and steady is the order of the day.  After a good feed we graduated her to a heat pad by the fire, a cosy blanket was her bed and we placed a heat pack next to her to simulate her family.  Piglets are not meant to be alone and she duly snuggled it with all her strength.  In between feeds she slept flat out, breathing softly, the rest of her still.

The tide began to turn around 10.30pm when, after moving her to our bedroom for night feeding,  I came in to find her out of her box and having a power show down with one of our cats.  She squealed and stood her ground fiercely, I’ve never seen a cat look so confused.  That feed was different, she was more wriggly and demanding, sucking down the milk ferociously and with determination.  Around 11.30 she demanded more and again around 2.  By 5am, when she began to refuse the milk and took up biting me instead; I decided that she was ready to return to Mama.  And so she did.

Mrs B, champion mother that she is, welcomed her back with a happy oink and nothing more.  I think she is so used to us that our smell did not alarm her, we sighed with relief the she hadn’t rejected this little scrap and let them get on with it.  ‘Charlotte’ as we’ve dubbed her, is still going strong.  We tried feeding her the milk a couple of times but she made it clear what she thought of that, not much.  We watch in fascination as she fights through the hoard and gets the milk she wants, always first and last at the teat.  She sneaks out while the others are asleep too, she’s not daft that Charlotte.

Yesterday we were out in the barn and we snuck a look under the lid at the babies as they napped.  In a long line they were, top to tail and squeezed together, happily snoozing.  Along the top of several of her siblings, using them as a mini porcine sun lounger, was Charlotte; basking in the heat from beneath and above she snoozed, as happy as a pig can be I think.  A dozen happy pigs, plus Mama, is pretty good going by my reckoning.  Makes icy winds and crazy nights seem worth it.

Power Outage

Power Outage

I’ve never made any bones about that fact that Stephen is the power house behind our farm.  He’s the muscle that brings the hustle, he’s the man with a plan.  Except.

Well except for the fact that he’s human and can break.  I know this because I watched it happen.  Over months discomfort turned into pain, which turned into debilitation.  After ‘treatment’ for back pain that only made things worse, we finally found out that Stephen’s back had herniated.  It could have been the time he carried twelve 5 gallon buckets of water for the cows, it could have been a million other things.  Death by a thousand…well heavy buckets I suppose.

Eventually, after not being taken seriously by a lot of different people, we ended up where I knew we would, emergency surgery.  As ever I’m eternally grateful for the medical services we have access to, as much as we try to do our own thing medically, when you can’t feel your legs you’re really happy that someone spent many years in medical school learning how to make you better.

So it’s been a bit of a road.  A road of discovery, of hard work, of trying to figure out how we are going to manage everything.  I took over the farm chores just after Christmas and it’s been mostly me and the boys up until now.  Stephen has been on call for emergencies (so every other day) and has been coming out to help more than I’d like, but woman power has been keeping things going.

Now I’d like to big myself up, but my work is really a sticky plaster keeping things from gushing.  Though I have learned to use an electric drill with deadly force, I know my limits.  Luckily the work we did last year to improve the infrastructure on the farm has made it possible for me to step into Stephen’s wood smoke smelling farm coat and keep things ticking over.  Without it, I really don’t think it would have been possible for me to manage the animal load with have this winter.  5 pigs, 4 cows, 9 ducks and a flock of laying chickens is more than we’ve carried in the past and was more than I would have thought I could have managed without my love to carry the bulk of it.

So how have I managed?  Well, at times, I’ve felt not very well.  There have been tears of frustration, of anger, of exhaustion.  I’ve been worried, I’ve been fearful, I’ve been extremely cross.  The weather has been a mix of blessedly mild and horribly problematic (I’m looking at you ice rain) but I’m generally grateful for the lack of mind numbing temperatures that make your fingers stop working after 5 minutes.

There have been setbacks, more than a few.  A frozen water supply because one of our cows likes to pull the plug out of the trough heater.  The pigs all deciding a fun game of ‘swap houses’ would liven things up during the long winter months.  A less fun game of ‘try to shag my underage daughter’ meant that the house swap really was not groovy and had to be resolved asap despite the fact that one of the players is a 600lb boar who ain’t going no where if he doesn’t want to.  And then there was the day when I walked into the chicken house to find that most of my flock had been murdered in the night by a weasel that I would really, really like to kill.

And that was just the last 2 weeks.

But hey, as my neighbour says, that’s farming.  As the weeks have gone on I’ve found my rhythm.  I’ve worked out what I can and can’t do, what I will and won’t tolerate.  I’ve got my own little routines and have figured out ways to make things easier.  I’m taking pride in learning new skills and am basking in the glow of some pretty heavy kudos coming my way from my beloved.  He’s a man not given to false praise I can tell you.  I feel a bit broken in places but I’m proud too, proud of keeping things going forward and of not giving in.  I’ve really wanted to at times, but these weeks have given me a real sense of ownership over aspects of the farm I never saw as mine.  I’m making more decisions, I’m able to see the issues more clearly because I’m part of it all more.  I’m finding a mental stamina that feels good to possess.

Plus I’ve had help.  I’ve had Stephen’s knowledge which is extensive, his physical help whenever it’s been needed or even when it’s not (sitting back doesn’t come naturally to him).  Our neighbour has stepped in and moved hay, shifted snow and been a support as he has for the last 5 years.  My dear friend and her husband have helped with childcare, meals, shifting heavy feed sacks and general sanity preservation; things really would have been bleak without their amazing back up.  We have loving family members offering to get on flights and help out if need be, plus the emotional support we need from those we love the most.

The boys (particularly Huwyl) have been basically wonderful.  Hauling wood, water and straw bales around the farm isn’t the usual remit of an 11 year old, but my lad has been by my side whenever possible.  Though they are still young the boys are learning the importance of family sticking together, of working side by side to support each other when it’s needed.  I’m proud of the young men these lads are turning into, I’m grateful for their open hearts and strong shoulders.

So here we are.  Counting the weeks until spring, watching the weather forecast obsessively and turning our faces to the wind to see if it feels like spring is coming yet.  There are good days and bad days, but that’s the way it always is.  A lot of the time I wonder why, why do we put this stress on ourselves.  Why do we make life harder than it has to be?  Wouldn’t it be nice to just lounge in bed a little more each day?  Wouldn’t it be easier to just not?

Yes, it would be.

But then, the moments that make it all seem worthwhile would be gone too.  The special glimmer that shines like a diamond sliver in a handful of sand.  The feel of a heartbeat on a fresh born baby critter, the long chats at the farm gate while the fragrance of wild summer air surrounds you.  The knowledge inside you that made something, did something, created something where otherwise nothing would exist.  It’s what keeps you moving forward, the memory of that, the hope of that.  It’s addicting.  I’m hooked.  It’s a lost cause.

Peace and Love

Peace and Love

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Diwali, Happy Eid (some years!), Blessings of the Yuletide be upon you.  Oh, and Happy Holidays.

There are a lot of words we can say to each other over the course of this dark winter season, I know that bothers some people but I say the more the merrier.  Any chance to share words of kindness, to wish good things for other people, is a good thing.  I don’t have to share a person’s faith the share their good intentions and I love this season for the way it breaks down barriers and gives us the chance to connect to strangers all around us.

I remember distinctly being in Nepal for Diwali, the festival of lights.  Every door way was surrounded by fairy lights and the world seem lit up by colour and magic.  I remember watching a woman making a sand mandala on her front door step, she looked up and smiled at me with warmth and connection.  I didn’t know the history of why she was doing what she was doing but I understood it none the less.  She was celebrating life, making the world a little more beautiful, creating art right there at the front of her house.

I do believe that there are more things that connect us than divide us, when we really look.  We all want good things for the people we love, we all want peace and prosperity for ourselves.  These are good things to want, we are not selfish to want them.  The selfishness comes when we seek to deny these things for others, or switch off our compassion for those in need.

So while I don’t share the faith that sits behind the Christmas celebrations, I can certainly share the intentions behind the words we hear all around us at this time of year.  When someone says Merry Christmas to me, whether it’s an automated response or a sincere and heartfelt wish, I know what is truly meant by those words.  It is the same as any celebration, of any religion, of people around the world.

They mean stay safe, stay warm; I hope you are loved, I hope you are happy.  

To those of us lucky enough to experience safety, family love and peace at this time of year we can rejoice in our good fortune.  We can donate money, time or goods to those who are less fortunate and we can use our words and gestures to remind all around us that most people are good people.  Most of us want peace, most of us want to give love and receive it in return.  It’s pretty simple.

So whatever beliefs sit inside your heart, whatever this season means to you whether it’s a time of faith or simply a time to be off work with family, I wish you only the best.  Stay safe, stay warm.  I hope you are loved, I hope you are happy.

Blessings of the Yuletide from our family to yours xxxx

Snowfall

Snowfall

In the heat of summer, when just moving around sets the sweat dripping down your back, we are thinking about winter.  From the first leaf of green peeking up through the mud and snow, to the last red and gold leaves that cover the ground with a luminous carpet, there is another colour that is always on our minds.

White.

Everything we work on, every project, everything we build is centred around the coming season.  From the seeds we plant to put food in the pantry for the colder days, to the wood we chop for the fire and furnace.  Even the animals we raise are there to help see us, and other families, through the long cold months where the earth is buried under a blanket of snow.  Well less of a blanket and more of a duvet 4 ft think.  With a few inches of ice on it just for safe measure.  So a very cold duvet.

We plan for it, we work at it, we build and chop and grow and never stop for months and months; but we are never, ever ready for it.  This year in particular, our wedding took up the month of September and we’ve been trying to catch up on the work every since.  Neither of us regret a moment of that joy, of course, some things are worth getting cold and snowy for.

Over the last few weeks we have finally started to feel that we are ready to head into winter mode.  We’ve had a few trial runs of heavy frosts, cold nights and some snowfalls, but we are used to these slightly faltering starts to the season.  We’ve started to view them as a chance to trouble shoot the farm for the several cold, cold months ahead.  Are there things that aren’t working?  Have the cows eaten through the pipe insulation again?  Will that roof leak when rained on?

Stephen has worked tirelessly since October on the farm infrastructure, resetting power supplies, building new accommodations and setting up new areas for the animals to live in.  We’ve learned to lay the foundations for next year in the fall of the previous year, allowing us to be up and running as soon as the weather allows.


This year we are carrying more animals than ever through the winter, meaning we needed more accommodations than ever before too.  Stephen repurposed a summer chicken tractor as a cosy duck house for the winter, they are happily snuggled in there with easy access to the pond on unfrozen days.  The cows have a new concrete platform for the wet and cold months making it safer for them and easier for us.  The farrowing barn is full with two piglets for spring meat and our lovely Pip (seen above) who will be bred for the first time this winter.

And the piece de resistance is the hay bale pig house that Stephen built for Mrs B. and Arthur the boar.  Using old bales that were no longer eating standard, he used the dance floor from our wedding as a roof and created the cosy hobbit house seen above.  The bales keep it incredibly warm with plenty of room for snuggling, hanging out and grown up piggy time that happens when a Mummy pig and a Daddy pig love each other very much.

This year, though I welcome the quietening snow and the lighter schedule the winter months bring, I feel a sense of melancholy too.  Perhaps it is that when I look at the tent frame or the wooden archway built for our wedding, I hear and feel the echoes of family and friends surrounding us.  I remember the bonfires and laughter as we joined together to celebrate not just our relationship, but all the elements that make our life what it is. The farm, our family, our friends, our own children, it’s all part of a puzzle that makes us what we are.

But some of those pieces are far away, not near enough to snuggle or share a joke with.  And I miss them so very deeply.  As the snow falls in a deep, plump carpet over the farm I wish I could share it all with them.  I suppose that is why I am writing this instead, to show them what today looks like, so different from only a short time ago.

But the beauty of this day wasn’t patient with my melancholy moment, it insisted I notice how the snow was so light and fluffy as it can only be in the early part of the season.  It pointed out to me that the piles of flakes building up on branches and buildings were just so delightful, that to be gloomy would be churlish and bad tempered.  As the soft icicles touched my face, one after the other, this day insisted that I notice the now.  That I notice how much this day intends to snow all over us; that I go out and turn my face up to falling flakes and feel lucky as the tiny dabs of silence touch my eyelashes and my house warmed skin.

And so I did.

Dig for Victory

Dig for Victory

It’s hard to know where to begin isn’t it?  The onslaught that has been the last week has blindsided so many of us that it’s hard to know how to have a reaction.  How do you react to an entire country being given over to hatred and oppression?  How do we react to our neighbours advocating for behaviour that taints and diminishes us all?  How should we react to individuals and institutions that threaten people we know and love?

That is a lot for one person to take on, that’s a lot for one person to absorb.  It’s a lot of anger, a lot of disappointment, a lot of fear.  An honest reaction is to want to turn away, to want to take a break, to breathe in the midst of the storm of noise and nastiness.  We want to take refuge, we want to let our hearts heal.  We want to believe that people are essentially good and will do the right thing; it’ll all be ok in the end.

I don’t believe that.

I no longer believe that people are essentially good and will do the right thing if given the chance.  I believe those people exist, I believe there are a lot of them, I know a lot of them.  But the truth is, there are a lot of people who just want what’s right for them and aren’t really that bothered about what happens to those affected by those needs or desires.  It’s easy to forget about them when they don’t live near us, they don’t work alongside us, they are not our neighbours.  When they are workers in fields far away, it’s easy to forget who grows and harvests our food.  When they are picking over mountains of refuse on another continent it’s easy to forget who deals with our waste and excess.

We live in a society that tells us more is better.  More stuff, more food, more entitlements, more land, more entertainment, more me.  More.  We are saturated with what we should have, how we can get it and who’s stopping us from getting it.  This isn’t about meeting basic needs for most people, it’s about meeting a standard that we’ve been told is important.  It’s about getting ahead, pushing past other people and winning.  Whatever the cost.  We’re not going to be told we can’t have what we want, even when it’s our planet telling us enough is enough.  Instead we elect leaders who tell us we can have what we want and don’t worry about the planet, or the workers, or the person who belongs to a different religion to you.

Except.

Those people are my friends.  And they are probably your friends too.  People who happen to believe that covering their bodies modestly is an act of self worth, we are told should be denigrated.  I guess we can’t sell self worth, we can’t plaster it on a billboard and use it to push purchases of beer or fast food.  And people from other countries?  Well they are just weird and don’t deserve to be here.  Unlike you and me.  Except I’m an immigrant aren’t I?  I may be white and educated but I’m a stranger in a strange land as much as anyone else who moved here.  Plus, guess what!  Anyone who isn’t native to this country is an immigrant too!  So while we look at this group and say they don’t belong, there are native people looking at us and saying ‘Seriously?’.

Also women aren’t a minority group, and feminism isn’t a dirty word.  We are half of the population and we don’t like it when people tell us who we are and what we should look like and that we don’t deserve to be safe.  That we don’t deserve to own ourselves.  I get cross about that stuff and I carry a pitchfork around sometimes so just watch it, ok?  Because I decide for me, I decide what goes where and who gets to be around me.  I decided what I’m worth and I decided a long time ago that what goes in my brain and the words that come out of my mouth matter more to me than anything else.  I like messing around with my hair and love me some vintage style but never confuse that for a brain on go slow.  I’ve never met a man who impressed me enough to make me think I’m less than him.  No one has managed that yet.

When I birth an animal or dig a garden or grow my own food or teach or drag myself out of bed in the middle of the night or at dawn because I’m needed, my uterus doesn’t get in the way.  I see things differently, I see things Stephen doesn’t see and vice versa. We are different so we are a good team.  My animals don’t care much that I’m female, they don’t care that it is female hands serving breakfast.  When they are sick they are glad for the help I offer, when they are naughty they run away as I chase them.  The farm is a great leveller like that, it’ll screw with you no matter what apparatus you carry around in your jeans.  That’s equality I suppose.

If I need medical help I’m going to ask my friend who’s a paramedic.  A woman who goes out day after day and deals with crap I can’t even imagine.  Luckily she has a wife at home who loves her more than sunshine, so I think that’s what keeps her strong.  But don’t be trying to tell me their marriage isn’t important or good or valid.  That woman would save your life, even if you did think that, but don’t think it anyway.  It’s a stupid thing to think.  It’s a hateful thing to think.  Don’t do it.

But what’s that got to do with growing carrots anyway?  What’s the point farm lady?

Well the point is this.  During the Second World War Britain was cut off from food supplies from other countries and had to figure out how to feed several million people when 60% of her food was imported.  Britain figured it out.  There are some issues with that legacy (hello factory farming) but one of the big things that happened was that people got back to growing their own.  When food is rationed but your garden isn’t, you are very motivated to grow something for the table.  My parents were born during rationing and I’ve grown up fascinated by the resilience and determination of people at that time.  When I grow my own food it isn’t just to add a sprinkle to the table, it is an act of defiance.  I am showing that I am strong, that I can grow things, that I can make something out of almost nothing.  It makes me proud, it feeds my family and it’s a little less I have to buy from companies I don’t like.

When I raise animals for my family and to sell to other families, I’m diverting a little bit of money away from factory farming and towards animals who live in sunshine and fields.  We are a drop in the ocean but we are keeping our animals out of a system we believe is inhumane and producing healthy food and healthy land.  We spend an insane amount of time and money to do it but it feels like the right thing to do.  Maybe that’s why we can’t stop even when it feels like too much.  Doing the right thing is addictive.  It gets under your skin and then you don’t want it any other way.

But it isn’t enough, not even close.  It’s not enough to create something beautiful and wonderful and difficult and hard.  It’s not enough to sit back in our corner of the world and shake our heads and say “Oh that’s terrible. They shouldn’t do that.”  Not nearly enough.  We can’t turn inwards and say “I can’t look at that.” We can’t pretend it isn’t happening and keep on keeping on.  It’ll take more than that.

We have to dig in.  We have to be louder and stronger and more determined.  We have to get knocked down and get back up again.  Because there are plenty of people on the front lines who can’t look away, who are genuinely afraid and at risk.  There are people who are being harassed and harmed and even killed because of the colour of their skin.  And that was before a sickening orange demagogue won an election and told the world that being a sleazy hate monger bag of filth, that makes anything that comes out of my animals look like a tasty milkshake, is the way to go.  Today a rabbi in my home city woke up to a swastika on her door and ugly words painted across it.  No it’s really not enough, but we have to throw everything we’ve got as this problem and we have to never give up.

So this is what  I am going to do, this is how I will fight.  This may change, this may evolve but for now it’s what I’ve got and so I’m going with it.

My farm is a place where all are welcome and if you disagree feel free not to come here.  This is a zone of safety where you are accepted whatever your race, ethnicity, religion, orientation or gender.  You may have a hard time if you are allergic to chickens but you are welcome anyway.  My own person is a zone of safety too.  I will advocate for tolerance, acceptance and normality whenever I can.  I will argue, push, cajole and persuade; I will not let things go or be polite, I will challenge and disagree even when it’s uncomfortable.  I will never give up, I will never give in.

More than that I will advocate in our society, I will invest more of my time in online and in person work.  I will strive towards a safe society for all, because I no longer believe that we’ve achieved that.  There is a lot of work to do and I’m going to have to do some of it.  Those of us who believe in justice and fairness need to raise our voices and actions to push back those who would oppress, suppress and repress.  We need to listen to people of other races and religions and find out what they need us to do, we need to use our privilege (whatever form that takes) to make things better for other people.  I will try and do that, I will try to learn and listen and change things.

I will continue to teach my children about their role in the world. I will continue to teach them that they have a duty to help, to improve things, to work towards a better world.  I have explained to them that as white males they are already valued more than their mother, more than some of their friends.  I hope they will use that to speak out for people with less of a voice, that they will react against injustice with the same honesty of heart as they do now.  I’ll be right behind them if they do.  I’ll be right behind them if they don’t.  But I think they will because when I try to explain the world to them they are furious, outraged and horrified.  When I explain that friends of ours are at risk they want to help and do what they can.  I trust they they will be good men, I will keep doing my part to make it so.

Last, but not least, I will stay angry.  I will light a fire inside myself and I will not let it go out.  I will read things that make me uncomfortable and I will not look away.  I will use it to fuel my actions, to keep me strong and to give strength to my compassion and determination.  I will not hate but I will not yield.  I will not shrug my shoulders at casual misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia.  I will not let remarks slide by for the sake of decorum, I will ask questions and bring into the light the low lying prejudices that we all possess.  That is my job and I will do it.

I will dig inside and find the resources I need to send out something good into the world.  I will share the knowledge I have about literature and books and words; I will share what I know about the land and protecting the earth as much as we can.  I will teach people that they can do things they didn’t think they could, I will show them that they are capable of wonderful things.  I will try to be fair, I will try to be good, I will do my best even though I know I am so terribly, terribly flawed.  I will remember this when I look at the flaws of others and feel angry with them.

Let’s take a deep breath and here we go.  I hope you are with me my friends, I don’t doubt that you are.  But no matter what we’ll keep moving forward and pushing back against the darkness.  So if you’re with me let’s get digging, apparently there is a hell of a lot to do.

Long Hot Summer

Long Hot Summer

It would be impossible to sum up a season in just a few words, but given that I’ve not written here for months I find myself trying to do just that.  Of course that is partly why I haven’t written in months because every time I try to encapsulate our life neatly, succinctly, I come up with nothing.  But then who has a neat life?  Certainly not me.

So I’ll probably write about different aspects of the last few months as I write about what is happening now and in future posts, but for now I suppose the easiest way to summarise our season so far is intense.  The weather, the work, the projects…it’s all been very intense.  Here in Eastern Ontario we’ve experience a severe drought this summer, leading to challenges we’ve not faced before.  From crispy pasture that doesn’t feed our cows to deciding which plants to water and which will have to fend for themselves.  Suffice to say a lot of our grass is looking the worse for wear.

This year reminds me a lot of 2011.  That was the year we built the house and there was a drought/heatwave that year too; but really it’s the work and intensity of focus needed that feels the same.  This year we have had to decide whether to scale the farm back to allow our current infrastructure to be enough, or to restructure to allow for future expansion.  We chose the latter, to the surprise of no one who has ever met either of us.  But this year we decided to get smart about it, we planned carefully, took a deep breath and gave all our money to people with diggers and trucks full of gravel.  Not what most people choose to spend their savings on, but then conforming to the norm is really not our strong suit.

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I will try to write more about the details of our restructure another time, but the brief list is that we’ve drained the cow field and created a safe concrete pad for them and us to work on, we’ve built new pig barns for safer farrowing of piglets, we’ve added a new gilt pig, we’ve gravelled the garden, extended the driveway, cleared out building debris and made a new garden where only crap stood before.  We’ve also done the usual fencing, moving and feeding of animals as well as the plethora of other chores that go along with the farm.  And I promise I wasn’t being sarcastic when I said that is the brief list, it really has been a bit bonkers.

When I say ‘we’ of course, I mean mostly Stephen when it comes to the building and infrastructure parts.  We plan and organise together, but when it comes to putting nails in things or moving tonnes of gravel (not a metaphor) by hand in the boiling sun of a heatwave, I can take no credit.  Stephen is the engine that powers the farm and I’ve never seen him work harder than he has this year.  My job is basically to do everything else and stop him from falling over from heat exhaustion.  Or regular exhaustion.  Both are entirely possible.  DSC_0113 DSC_0116 DSC_0126

This summer has felt to me like pushing against a really big boulder until it shifts a few feet.  On the surface the changes may not seem huge to the casual bystander, but to us they are massive.  To walk across a field without being calf deep in mud after a rainstorm is practically miraculous.  To have a purpose built barn where little pigs can be born brings us nothing but joy.  The work has been hard and seemed endless at times, but this work will lay a foundation that the next 5 years will be built upon.  It will allow us to add more cows, breed more pigs and do a better job of it while we’re about it.  It’s not sexy but to us it’s the most important work we could have done.

While Stephen was building farm infrastructure I made a garden.  I sowed, hoed and weeded my way through the spring and summer and now we are starting to bring in buckets of produce that must be canned, dried, bagged and stored.  It can seem a bit endless at times, but I am anticipating the joy of pulling frozen vegetables out of the freezer mid winter or the sharp tang of currant jam while the snow falls.  It’s what keeps me going when my feet, back and every other muscle I have hurts, complains and generally acts like a big baby.  It’s work I could avoid, yet it’s work that needs doing.  Perhaps I can sum it up by saying I don’t always enjoy canning but I enjoy having canned.

Yesterday, while I picked tomatoes, the boys picked marrows (overgrown zucchini) from the summer squash bed.  They were delighted with themselves and generally acted as though they had discovered buried treasure with each one.  They stacked them like logs and said things like “Look at this badboy!” whenever they dragged another hugely striped squash out onto the gravel that now surrounds the beds so neatly.  Many of the squash will go to feeding animals, giving pigs and chickens a welcome treat.  But the real gift is when I remember sitting on the front step with the seed packet in my hand wondering if it was a bit late to get them started, I decided not and in they went.  A few months, some weeding, watering and loving care later and there is a pile of 16 marrows basking in the sunshine.  I don’t know if that’s a metaphor for something or not, but it seems like a very good use of my time.  DSC_0129 DSC_0131 DSC_0132

This week I’ve processed a couple of buckets of tomatoes (9 jars in the pantry thank you) and our second bucket of elderberries from the trees we planted 3 years ago.  Last year I got a small jar of berries, this year it’s been 2 buckets full.  They are currently drying in my new (to me) snazzy dehydrator that I bought from a very nice lady earlier in the year.  I was nervous about such a big purchase but even Stephen has commented on how much it is being used.  Sage and calendula, mint, lemon balm, berries and leaves have all found their way onto those screens and into jars.  My pantry is slowly beginning to fill again, with food and medicine from our own gardens, from the land around us; we are doing our best to make the most of what we have and build what needs to be built.

It hasn’t been the season I had imagined it would be, it hasn’t been what I expected.  But I think it’s been what it had to be, a foundation year that will allow us to build a future.  In the meantime I’m enjoying the chance to breath again now that the hottest of the weather has broken and I’m trying to make sure that every day isn’t too full as we enjoy that last weeks of a long hot summer.   I think it will be one we remember for a good while.

Signs of Life

Signs of Life

First of all thank you to everyone who said such nice things to us after I wrote about Morag.  In person, on facebook, in the comments section we were met with kindness and understanding.  Thank you.  

Well last week was a bit of a funny one.  We are used to death in some ways on the farm, we are used to being in control of the lives of animals and part of that is deciding when the end should come.  But when a death is sudden and unexpected it feels very different, especially when we lost a favourite girl.  But life goes on, whizzing along whether you like it or not.  In my experience its best to grab onto it and hold on tight, joy is always worth having.

All around us now are the signs of new life, there will be more as the spring progresses with new chicks arriving this week and more gardening planned too.  The grass is greening, trees are budding, herbs are coming back to life and there are babies everywhere.

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The pastures are greening up as the morass of mud slowly recedes, giving hope to the possibility of being able to walk across a field without being ankle deep in mud.  I mean really, just imagine. We have plans afoot for new infrastructure on the farm this year that will help us combat the spring mud season (and the winter snow season) but right now we are grateful for being able to walk across the cow field without actually getting stuck.

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Planting from years past and natures own goodness is all starting to come into leaf, making my thoughts drift forward to warmer days of harvesting and storing.  Right now the wind still holds a pinch of winter, but we’ve had some tasters of jacket free days…dare I even dream of sandals?

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Inside the seed trays are simply full of leaf and life, though the prospect of having to pot on around 250 tomato plants caused me to declare this week a Farm Week, a week where we focus on the tasks that really need to happen now but can’t be packed into an already packed weekend.  What with classes, friends, chores, chicken moving, calf feeding….the hours just seem to run away with us.  So this week I’m enslaving my children, giving my children an invaluable hands on educational experience,  and really trying to catch the tail of spring as she whizzes past us, greening everything in sight.

But really the main preoccupation this week has been a beautiful baby calf, one week old yesterday, who’s beauty just astounds us.  There really is something utterly magical about a newborn anything, they hold such perfection and such promise; she is certainly no different and we admire her to anyone who’ll listen.  Frankly if they’re not listening we’ll still go on about her.

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Every six hours she’s fed by hand, stroked and admired, cuddled and fussed.  Stephen has robbed himself of sleep to keep her on the perfect schedule, plodding out there as the moon rises and shortly after as the sun chases her to the horizon.  Wee Morag stumbles around like a drunken Bambi, making you laugh as she tries to head butt you in the face for more milk while the bottle is held an inch from her mouth.  There really is nothing so bonkers as a cow’s face looming at you.  I’m learning to wear a second layer when it’s my turn because between frothy milk mouth and shiny cow bogeys, clothing doesn’t stand much of a chance.  She’s learning a little about the world and meeting the other cows from the safety of a leash so that she can’t be accidentally stood on.  She’s received some licks from her sister and they’ve all had a good sniff.  I think they’ll all get along very well.

But for now she still occupies the deluxe suite, the barn set aside just for her with a corral that she can boing around in without risk of harm.  The boys go down every day and spend time with her, enjoying her enjoyment of strokes and scratches and hugs.  We can’t replace her lovely Mama, the devoted attention she would have received as they roamed together each day.  But we can give it all we’ve got and hope it’s enough.

So far, she’s doing wonderfully.  She is wonderful.

Morag, the cow who lost her moo.

Morag, the cow who lost her moo.

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3 years ago, when I was in the UK visiting my Dad with the boys, I got a message from Stephen saying “I just bought a cow!”.  My response was something supportive like “You bought a what?!” until I eventually established that no he wasn’t kidding and yes he’d bought a cow.  A real one.  Granted the messages had been preceded by ones like “I’m at an auction!” and “They have cows here!” so I really should have seen it coming.  When I told my Dad and he expressed surprise I said “Are you really surprised?  Doesn’t this seem exactly like the kind of thing we do?”.  He conceded this was the case.

I’ll admit to being unimpressed by Stephen’s mystery purchase and when he sent me a picture of a scraggly, skinny and frankly hacked off looking cow my spirits didn’t lift massively.  It was when he told me that she was a bit underweight, a bit unloved and pregnant that the tide started to turn for me.  I have a bit of a thing for bringing neglected things back to life (hence the purchase of 100 acres of derelict land) and she was just that; neglected, unwanted and now all ours.

A couple of weeks later our second hand cow calved out a still born calf, a truly sad outcome that hit us quite hard.  She was boarding with our kind neighbour who looked after her perfectly, but he told us that with her being underweight and a bit neglected she was at a higher risk of losing her calf.  On most farms that would have been the end for her, she wasn’t calving healthy calves so the road would have firmly ended.  But not with us.  That summer she ran with our neighbour’s bull and the following spring she calved out a beautiful bull calf for us.  Quietly and without fuss she proved her Mama skills.

Devoted Mama that she was we bred her again and last spring she gave us Daisy, a beautiful Angus/Simmental cross, born in the pasture on a warm day in May.  Again she showed what a devoted mother she was and raised up a strong and healthy girl.  Our herd was growing and Morag was its centre, the others followed her lead and were kept in line by her firm but fair direction.  She was the Queen Cow and, frankly, she was our favourite.  Extra oats for Morag all winter?  No problem.  Someone wants their head scratched?  Morag is first in line.  She let us fuss her, for as long as she wanted and no longer, and had a judgmental stare a 17th century nun would have been proud of.  We adored her.

 

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When Morag first came to live with us we noticed that she never mooed.  Now contented cows don’t have that much to moo about, but our other cow would occasionally let out a moo or two, maybe of greeting, maybe to alert us to the fact that a few more oats would be quite welcome thank you.  But Morag never made a sound.  Sometimes a raspy cough but that is it.  But when her first calf came along that changed, a Mama needs to be able to call to her baby and that’s what she tried to do.  At first her moo was harsh, like a voice that has gone unused for a really long time; but one day, when her little guy had strayed just that bit too far she let out a true Mama bellow.  After that she could moo like a champ, like a lot of us she found her voice when she was a Mum.

Last summer we bred our top girl up to some primo Angus love juice.  We were hoping for a lovely heifer to finally succeed her mother to the crown, years down the line we’d have Morag’s daughter to continue her proud heritage.  She duly fell pregnant on the first try and munched her way healthily through summer, fall and winter emerging wide and very, very pregnant when spring finally dawned.  With just two weeks to go we were excited about her calving out and enjoying the warmer weather that had finally arrived.

On Saturday morning we went out to find her ‘cast’, stuck on her side and unable to get up.  We called our neighbour and then the vet to check the calf and help us get her up.  We determined that she couldn’t stand, that her hip was either dislocated or broken, but either way things weren’t good.  We managed, after much work and a very long day, to get her in a comfy warm spot where she could eat and drink and be warmed by the sun.  The vet induced the calf as she was less that two weeks before her due date and we watched and waited.  Stephen didn’t sleep that night, going out every hour to check that she hadn’t rolled back onto her side and managing to get her back over when she did.  It was a real act of devotion on his part.

The next day, the hottest of the year, we waited and watched again.  We hoped she would calve out naturally and perhaps the reduced load on her body would free her hip up to get back into place.  We prepared for the worst and hoped for the best.  As her labour progressed we had great hope, she’d birthed her last two with relative ease and calm; but time dragged on and even our neighbour began to be concerned.  We called the vet again, hoping he could help to pull the calf or give her a jab to help strengthen her contractions.  She was clearly worn out and the calf was at grave risk.

Within moments the vet pronounced that we had two choices, lose Morag or lose them both.  Her pelvis had shattered as a result of what can only be described as a freak accident, and possibly compounded by her not being a young cow (we think somewhere between 11 and 16 at the outside), there was no possibility of recovery.  We agreed to a c-section to bring out her calf and then he would end her life as quickly as possible.

I sat by her head as the vet worked, I stroked her neck and told her how brave she was.  I promised that we would look after her baby for her, I told her what a good girl she was.  Stephen helped to pull the calf out and clear her of mucus while I tried to keep Morag calm.  She was not in pain but she was scared, I tried to help her feel better.  I remembered how I had felt when my first boy came into the world via c-section; I cried while I did it and for a while after too.  She saw her little baby girl come into the world, the girl we had so hoped for, but had never imagined she would be born like this.  Born to trade places with her own Mama within moments.  And then Morag was gone.

We tended to calf in the sunshine, rubbing her with towels and cuddling her.  We sat with Morag while our neighbour dug a place for her in our woods, a peaceful spot under a break in the trees.  The vet went off to get colostrum from a nearby dairy for us and so we sat together with our new girl and our old girl.  I couldn’t seem to stop crying and even Stephen, my tough northern chap, had a suspiciously husky tone to his voice.  It had all been so quick, so sudden and so terribly, terribly sad.

At that moment our sow, basking blissfully in the sun a few feet away, broke wind in a long and pleasingly full bodied parp.  It went on for some time and seemed to make her even more satisfied.  We turned and looked at her, laughing at the timing and watched her piglets bouncing around her, enjoying the sun alongside their Mummy.  We laughed because it was funny and because, as the saying goes, if you don’t laugh you’ll cry.

Morag has stayed on the farm, she’ll always be here with us.  We didn’t want her life to end this way but I’m glad her final years were spent as Queen of the Herd, pampered, adored, praised and loved.  Her baby girl will grow up to be the rightful heiress to her kingdom I’m sure, we are already devoted to her, feeding, stroking, fussing and spoiling her.  We decided to call her Wee Morag Silver Linings, because she is the gift her Mama gave us.

I told my neighbour, a kind but laconic fellow, a man of few words to say the least, that I could see she would be spoiled rotten in no time at all.

“Well,” he replied “Better spoiled than not I’d say.”

I agree.

Spring Starts

Spring Starts

Today I have actually reached the point of feeling that I can actually use the word ‘spring’ officially without a) crying at the same time b) using some kind of prefix like “what the $&@#$ is up with….” and c) expecting there to be some kind of weather related retribution that will bring at least 10 cms of snow in the next 24 hours.  It’s been that kind of spring.

A few times in the last couple of months I have wandered outside, my face turned up to the sky and basked in the warm spring-like sunshine and thought to myself ‘this is it’.  Of course the next day my face was firmly inside because I didn’t want a foot of snow all over it.  Seriously.  There was a lot of snow this spring.  A lot.  Enough to bury my soul in.  Science fact.

But the weather forecast is finally releasing us from our wintery gloom and predicting 20 degrees on the weekend.  20 degrees!  20!!!  Degrees!!!!  Sorry I know that is an irrational amount of exclamation marks but holy cow, I’m ready for spring.  I know I say that every spring and I mean it every spring but this year I really, really mean it.  A lot.

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Despite the mildness of this winter past, especially when compared with the face peeling cold of the previous two winters, it has still felt long and dreary and long.  Did I say long?  Because it felt long.  And, as it does every year, my foolish British soul peeks it’s head from behind it’s metaphorical spiritual duvet sometime in March and starts saying annoying things like “Isn’t it time for the children to be outside yet?”  And I, of course, reply “Shut up soul!  You do this every year!  It’s going to suck for at least another 6 weeks and look now it’s snowing again.”  Usually I weep at that point, or face plant into a cake.  Or both if I’m honest; this year was no different.

But some desperate optimism about the weather must have caught on because Stephen and I spent some time on the weekend starting seeds, little brown packages of hope that they are; plopping them into warm, moist soil and nurturing them, just as they will sustain us through the coming months.  Over the last few days we’ve watched and marvelled as the first sparks of life emerge in plastic trays in the dining room of our house.  I love how life works that way, miraculous and utterly mundane.

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We’ve had increasingly warm days this week, slightly stymied by my littlest bean coming down with a yucky tummy bug, but we are all emerging into the sunlight a little mystified and a lot happier.  There have been moments where the house has fallen silent as the boys run off outside for a bit (Sometimes with some encouragement from Mummy.  Or a lot of encouragement.  Some people would use the word threats but it’s such an ugly term.)  I’ve looked around a little, momentarily unoccupied and been a little unsure what to do.  We are coming into a new season not just of the year but of life, but that’s a post for another day and thoughts for another hour.

So as I peek underneath the condensation clouded lids of my seeds trays and as I wander, oh so casually, out to the polytunnel so recently cleared out by the lovely men in my life, my inner eye is beginning to dream of abundance.  Though there are only specks here and there and the memory of snow is a starkly recent one, my dreaming life is painted with green.  Green and the scent of honey on the air.